|In the adjacent room, three blackened bricks surround a small hole in the floor. Nearby, there are a bundle of dry twigs and a few tin pots. This is where Sudha will cook dinner tonight. |
The home is reminiscent of those in countless villages in sub-Saharan Africa. But here in Bellary, a city of 350,000 about 200 miles northwest of Chennai, there is a more compelling comparison to life in Africa.
Sudha and her two brothers are living on their own—orphaned by AIDS.
The disease has established a deadly foothold in this nation of more than 1.1 billion. According to the United Nations, upward of 9.4 million Indian children and adults are infected with HIV, eclipsing South Africa as having the most people in the world carrying the virus. Without a comprehensive prevention program, that number is expected to exceed 20 million cases by 2010 and kill 11 million within the next two decades.
|Those statistics do not worry Sudha. What does worry her is getting to work on time at a nearby cotton mill, where she earns the equivalent of 90 cents after an eight-hour day, and making sure her younger brother, 11-year-old Guru, who is HIV-positive, keeps up with his studies. And of course, there’s always cleaning the home, laundering their clothes, and preparing meals. |
Quite a challenge for a 13-year-old girl.
How did Sudha end up running their household? Her deep chestnut-colored eyes moisten with tears as she relates her story.
“My mother, she worked hard and earned money for our family,” she says. “She took care of us so well. But I cannot forget the last month of her life. That picture will not leave my mind.”
|Five years ago, Sudha bore the burden of caring for her dying mother, who was a devadasi—a temple prostitute (see related story). As a result, all three of the children have different fathers and they don’t know the men’s identities.|
“What my mother did was not right,” Sudha says. Her voice trails off into awkward silence.
It’s not just the devadasi system that makes women especially vulnerable to AIDS. Their low social and economic status puts them in a weak position to insist on safe sex in any context, according to Dr. Nafis Sadik, U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.
Women must be empowered to reduce their vulnerability to AIDS, Nafis contends, “through greater commitment by leaders at all levels to protect women from violence, improve their access to education, prevention, treatment, and reproductive health services, and increase support for women caregivers.”
|It is common in India that when a husband dies of AIDS, the wife is frequently ostracized by her parents and in-laws for supposedly infecting her spouse.|
In reality, says Heather, the overwhelming majority of HIV-positive women are married and monogamous. They contract the virus from their husbands, who often were infected by other partners, including prostitutes.
|She contracted HIV from her husband, who died of AIDS in 1995. And—true to the pattern Heather outlined—she was devastated when her in-laws and neighbors shunned her.|
“After my husband’s death, my in-laws wanted me to leave the house along with my two children,” she says. “But I fought back. Today I am able to live in my husband’s house, but initially it was a big problem.”
The child’s frail voice becomes a bit stronger when he’s asked about school and his hopes for the future.
“I want to work in an office, a big office,” Dinesh says proudly. He opens a Winnie-the-Pooh backpack to show visitors several textbooks and completed written assignments, most with good grades and few corrections highlighted in red pen. His school’s third grade curriculum includes English, penmanship and, his favorite subject, math.
Joytsna offers a warm embrace and heartfelt smile to Dinesh and his grandmother as she leaves their small apartment. “I help them to cope with the disease,” Joytsna explains. “Whatever the problem may be, we have to face it and live life to the best.”
Living life to the best, for India’s women and girls, ultimately means having a role in developing policies that affect them—especially now in the era of AIDS. The United Nations’ Global Coalition on Women and AIDS promotes initiatives providing women with leadership training and advocacy skills, equipping them to make their voices heard. Meanwhile, women aren’t shying away from the hard work of combating a killer disease close-up. Any doubts? Just ask Heather, Jyotsna, and young Sudha.
—Dean Owen is a media relations director for World Vision.
—Jon Warren is the photo director for World Vision and photo editor for World Vision magazine.
|The feature above was published in |
World Vision Magazine—Spring 2007[pdf].
Other features from this issue include: